by Charles McGuigan
God knows how many lost souls gave up the ghost, in one form or another, in the Devil’s Triangle. And how many fortunate ones today find safe harbor at the Sheppard Street Tavern. Though its address is on Park Avenue, its name reflects the cross street.
Owner David Bender smiles. “Richmond has a long history of that kind of thing,” he says. “Boulevard Deli was on Broad Street. Hull Street Outlet is on Jeff Davis Highway. Grove Avenue Baptist Church is on Ridge Road and Parham. So, yeah, Sheppard Street Tavern is on Park Avenue.”
It its first incarnation, it was called Caliente. “We opened on New Year’s Day 2004,” David says. “The build out took a year. It was a freaking nightmare. We hired the wrong contractor, and the city didn’t make it easy. I was working part-time at Comfort, and my (former) wife was working at Joe’s.”
Like Sheppard Street Tavern, Caliente was a neighborhood restaurant and bar. They specialized in Cajun, Caribbean and Southern-inspired cuisine. But Caliente had not been David’s first choice for a name. “I wanted to call it Hot and Bothered, but the neighborhood association fought me tooth and nail on that,” David says. As they would when he applied for a permit to open up a patio, which quickly became one of the most popular drinking and dining spots in the Museum District.
He remembers what things were like in that two-block strip along Sheppard when he first opened the restaurant. “Forty percent of the buildings were vacant,” David recalls. “There were broken windows. There was graffiti. There was litter all over the place. And one of the things a patio would do is put eyes on the street. And the more eyes out there, the less s***’s gonna happen. Devil’s Triangle used to be lined with Harley’s between The Ritz and Café 21 and The Felix. You go to the Ritz, if you didn’t have a gun or knife when you went in, they’d give you one.” He laughs.
From almost the moment, Caliente opened, it was a success. “We rolled,” says David. “I was in the kitchen, lunch and dinner, basically six days a week, twelve to eighteen hours a day. But we were rolling. We were making good food, keeping the bills paid, making money. And we had a lot of regulars. Some of them still come in today fifteen years later.”
In some ways, it was no surprise that his restaurant was so popular. It merged two things that people crave—the company of others and fine food.
After earning a degree in psychology, and spending a dreadful year working in a residential facility for teenage delinquents, David decided on a different career path. “I hated that job at the residential facility,” he says. “I would get a pit in my stomach a day before I had to go back to work, and I finally quit. Working there inadvertently drove me into the restaurant business.”
His roommate at the time was cooking at the Texas Wisconsin Border Café, so David asked if they had any openings. “They hired me on the spot,” he says. “I worked there four years, from the late eighties till the early nineties. That’s where I learned how to hustle, how to be a line cook. I learned timing. I learned communication with the other cooks.”
David shifts his position in the chair, and brings his arms across the table. ”It’s all about timing, consistency and communication,” he says. “In line-cooking you have a b***s-to-the-wall attitude. You have to know what the other cooks are doing, what’s going to come up at what time. Everything has to be timed so it comes up together. You don’t want your fries turning to mush while you’re waiting for your burger to cook. The best line cooks never have to even talk to each other, because they know what the other one is doing.”
When Border West closed, David went to work at Melito’s Restaurant. “There I learned how to cook, how to make specials, how to make sauces, how to make soups, how to cut steaks, how to trim fish, all the cooking skills that aren’t line-cooking or prep-cooking, but actually creating,” he says.
At Melito’s he also learned more than a little bit about customer service. “A customer’s special order was always done and never questioned,” says David. “It didn’t matter how busy you were, if a customer wanted a side of barbecue sauce somebody stepped off the line to make barbecue sauce.”
Four years later, David moved on to further round out his skills. “I went to Graffiti Grille where I learned about fine dining,” he says. “And they had a wide open kitchen right there in the middle of the dining room, so I had to learn to control my volume, control my words. It was a great place and great time to be there. And I learned how to cook duck and rack of lamb and nicer foods.”
When Michelle Williams opened Europa Italian Cafe & Tapas Bar, she hired David as a sous chef. “I was there for close to a year, and again I learned to hustle,” he says. ”We had five or six people on the line at any one time.”
And there was reason for this. Although tapas are small, they require a lot of work. “With Melito’s you’re doing a salad or an appetizer, and then an entre and sometimes a dessert,” David explains. “With tapas, a four-top is gonna have a dozen different plates, and then some. On a busy night we turned out over four hundred covers.”
At the end of his stint at Europa, he took his first plunge into restaurant ownership, and it would be something like coming full circle for David. He partnered with three seasoned veterans of the industry—Johnny Giavos, Mark Selahi, and Ernest von Ofenheim.
“The four of us bought the old Texas Wisconsin,” says David. “That was 1998, and we ran it as Texas Wisconsin for a month or two, and then we closed it down to do some minor renovations, and opened it up as Border Chophouse.”
The reception was okay, but The Chophouse wasn’t breaking any records. “Let’s just say we paid the bills,” David says. “And what I couldn’t understand was why people would wait forty-five minutes to an hour at Outback for a crappy steak, when for the exact same money, or even a little less, they could have a good steak with a baked potato and a salad and vegetables, a good steak properly prepared in an independent restaurant.”
Three years later, David sold out his share of The Border Chophouse, and spent six months out in Telluride, Colorado. “I basically went out on sabbatical,” he says. “I paid six months rent up front, and went out there with my snowboard and my CDs, and not much else. I was living four blocks from the nearest chairlift, and thirty miles from the nearest traffic light. I cooked three nights a week.”
Shortly after he returned to Richmond, David got married and opened Caliente.
He remembers how things were back then, and the sudden mushroom cloud explosion a few blocks to his north. “When we opened up, the only things in Scott’s Addition were Moore Street Café, the Dairy Bar, and Sue’s Country Kitchen,” he says. “Now they’ve got the bowling alley, they’ve got the shuffle board bar, they have bingo beer, they have eight or ten breweries, a meadery, two cideries, a distillery. I stopped counting at twenty-five.”
A number of those places don’t just offer food and tavern-fellowship. “They’re entertainment venues, people want to be entertained when they go out now,” he says.
Then there’s the ever-present black mirror. “You can’t go to a bar to have a conversation anymore, even if you want to” says David. “Because everyone else is on their phone. People are sitting across from each other and not talking because they’re both looking down at their screens.”
But that’s not the case at Sheppard Street Tavern. When re-branding the restaurant, David even changed seating to encourage a more communal eating experience. “I took out the middle tables and put in two eight-top, high-top tables,” he says. “And here’s a daily occurrence: you’ll have three people sitting at one end, and two more will sit at the other end, but the next thing you know, instead of being a party of three and a party of two, it’s a party of five.”
And as always, the food is extraordinary, the menu eclectic and ever-changing, and there’s a joy David Bender feels anytime a customer voices their appreciation.
“There’s a huge amount of pride when somebody comes up to the window and says, ‘Dude, that was the best steak I ever had. You’ve got the best French fires,’” David says. “French fires. All they are are cut potatoes friend in grease. But over and over again people say, ‘You’ve got the best fries in town.’”
Sheppard Street Tavern
Mon-Fri, 11:30 am-2 am; Sat & Sun, 10:30 am -2 am
2920 Park Avenue, 23221